Wednesday, August 28, 2013

#355 Lee Smith

Card thoughts: Here’s Lee Smith, in all his tall-man glory. When I look at this card, I smile inwardly and think of all the joy I had as a youth, watching Smith dominate in the late innings.

The player:  One the most dominant closers of his era, Smith should be in the Hall of Fame.  He was also involved in one of the worst Cubs’ trades of all time.

Originally a starter in the minors, Smith was struggling with an ERA over 6 when his manager at Midland moved him to the bullpen. In that era, a bullpen gig was seen as a demotion, with little future. Disappointed, Smith briefly quit and played college basketball. But at the request of Hall of Famer Billy Williams, he accepted his role, and was called up at the end of 1980.

In 1981, Smith was on the team for good, but veteran Dick Tidrow was the closer. So he pitched mostly in middle relief, with a league average ERA. With Tidrow's move to middle relief in '82, Smith became the closer, and would remain a closer the rest of his big league career where owed most of his early success to Fergie Jenkins, who taught him the forkball and how to better use his slider.

His first big season as a closer was in 1983, when he led the league with 29 saves and had a 1.65 ERA, which turned out to be the lowest ERA in his entire career. He was named to the all star team, but got hit hard by the Americans. In the eighth inning, Smith gave up two runs, one earned.

In the next three seasons, Smith saved 30 games each year. Highlights during this stretch include recording one save and one loss in the 1984 ALCS, and pitching in the 1987 All Star Game, in which he earned the win by pitching 3 scoreless innings.

Despite Smith’s success, the Cubs felt he was getting too fat, and that was putting too much pressure on his knees. I think they believed Smith was a year away from being washed up and didn’t value a consistent closer like they should’ve. So GM #231 Jim Frey, in his infinite wisdom, sent Smith to the Red Sox for #210 Calvin Schiraldi (who Frey hilariously compared to a young Lee Smith) and #181 Al Nipper. I still remember how angry I was at this trade. Very soon, I was proved correct.

Far from being washed up, Smith would pitch another decade and rack up another 300 saves.  With the Red Sox, Smith was not as dominant as with the Cubs, but he did save 58 games over three seasons. But the Red Sox, like the Cubs, became convinced that Smith’s ballooning weight would lead to injury, so they dealt him in 1990 to the Cardinals for Tom Brunansky. The move back to the NL reinvigorated Smith, and he led the league in saves in 1991 (47) and 1992 (43). In the former year, he was second in Cy Young award voting.

Although Smith had saved 43 games again for the Cardinals in 1993 (which made him the all-time saves leader), they were well out of the division race and his ERA was 4.50. So, he was sent to the Yankees for almost nothing. His entire Yankee career lasted eight games before he became a free agent. Smith signed with Baltimore, where he led the league in saves again (33), and pitched in his last all star game (he gave up a game-tying two run double to Fred McGriff).

At 37, Smith signed with the Angels where he saved the same number of games as years he had lived. But that would be his last year as a dominant closer, as his knees finally gave out. Short stints with the Reds and Expos ended his career.

When he retired, Smith was the all-time saves leader who, it could be argued, was the best reliever for much of his era Although he has gotten about 50% of the vote each time he’s up for the Hall of Fame, the Hall consistently undervalues the closer (only Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Bruce Sutter, Rich Gossage and #185 Rollie Fingers are in.) Smith’s career is certainly on par with theirs.

Smith coached the South African national baseball team in 2006, and is the minor league roving pitching instructor for the Giants.

Rear guard: Here's Smith's first Topps card. He looks pensive.

The "Talkin Baseball" items for long running franchises are fun, because it is almost always some player you've never heard of. There's actually a card of Mertes, where he looks a bit like actor Ed Helms. Nicknamed "Sandow", Sam's home runs were likely of the inside-the-park variety,  Mertes actually had good power for the time, with a career slugging percentage just a tick below .400. 

In 1900, Mertes hit 7 homes and drove in 60 runs while stealing 38 bases. He was a greater success with the New York Giants, where he twice drove in over 100 runs.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

#354 Tony Bernazard

Card thoughts: I really don't think Bernazard has this bad of an overbite in real life.

The player: Bernazard was a colorful figure as a player (he only ate chicken during hot streaks), and was such a hot head as a Mets VP during the 2009 season that he was fired. In between, Bernazard had a decent career, mostly as a second baseman.

Signed as a raw 17 year old out of Puerto Rico by the Expos, Bernazard spent 6 years in the minors before getting his chance to come up to the big club when Chris Speier was injured in July, 1979. In limited play, he hit .300 with a .925 OPS.  Bernazard was slotted in a utility role in 1980, with the Expos preferring the blazing speed of Rodney Scott at second, and the experience of Speier at short. He struggled in this role, hitting just over .220.

A change in scenery was in order, and he was sent to the White Sox for struggling starter Rick Wortham. With the smaller ballparks in the American League, Bernazard started to thrive. Generally batting second or leadoff, Bernazard scored 90 runs in 1982 and was on base at a .337 clip.

But with the Sox charging toward the division title in ’83, Tony LaRussa decided he needed more speed at the top of the lineup to make up for the departure of Ron LeFlore. So Bernazard was sent to the Mariners for #14 Julio Cruz in a starting second baseman swap. Interestingly, he stole 21 bases after the trade, almost as many as Cruz.

Despite hitting well in his brief time with the Mariners, it soon became clear he was an abject fielder (19 errors at second in 1983, and a below average defensive rating while with the Mariners). So he was swapped to the Indians for yet another starting second baseman, #146 JackPerconte, and disappointing slugger Gorman Thomas. At first, it looked like a terrible trade as Bernazard endured a record breaking 0 for 44 slump and hit just .225, while Perconte hit .294 for the Mariners.

By the time this card was issued, Bernazard was beginning to hit again, eventually earning his a Topps all star card in 1987, when he hit career highs in just about every offensive category, including hits (169) home runs (17), runs batted in (73), and batting average (.301).

A disappointing 1987 season followed, where Bernazard got a little homer happy, and his average dropped considerably. He was swapped in a deadline deal to the A’s for marginal players Darrel Akerfelds and Brian Dorsett. He took over for the injured #29 Tony Phillips at second for the rest of the season and hit .266 with an good OPS for a second baseman.

After the season, Bernazard decided to try his luck in Japan, where he played three years with the Hawks. His best Japanese season was in 1989 when he hit 34 homers and drove in 93 while slugging .543. He also had a 28 game hitting streak in 1988. Coming back to the states in 1991, Bernazard signed a contract with the Tigers. He got into 6 early season games before being released in May.

Bernazard has worked a variety of “white collar” baseball jobs since retirement, including as a player relations advisor to the MLBPA. But was in his role as VP of Player Development with the Mets that Bernazard got into real trouble. Although it’s hard to believe these were the first instances of his anger issues (and apparently, it wasn’t—see this account of the “bus-driver incident.”), during the 2009 season Bernazard:

  • Ripped off his shirt and challenged several Binghampton Mets to a fight, after verbally abusing them. Apparently, the trigger was poor play and underage drinking

  • Got in a nasty argument with a Diamondbacks scout, when the scout was sitting in a seat he wanted at Citi Field, the Mets home park. He reportedly publicly ripped into his deputy who suggested he wait until the inning was over.

  • Nearly came to blows with reliever Francisco Rodriguez on the team bus. Although in this case, the latter may have been as much to blame, given his own anger management issues.

     Even after his dismissal, the Mets had to repair some damage to the team, most notably the fact that Bernazard (who was not the hitting coach, remember), got obsessed with making the team hit the ball the other way, so much so that they began to hit for less power.

After being fired, Bernazard worked for Scott Boras in a role similar to the one held with the MLBPA.

Rear guard: Bernazard's first Topps card was an Expos "future stars" card that he shared with John Tamargo and Randy Miller. Hard believe that Miller was believed to be a star: He had not pitched in the majors since 1978, probably since he gave up 11 runs in his career in just 7 innings. He did go 10-8 at Denver with a 4.48 ERA in 1979, hardly a star making turn. Bob Pate, who hit .343 at Denver that year, would have been a better choice. 

As for John Tamargo, he had a appeared on a Giants prospects card in 1979. He would supplant Duffy Dyer as the primary back up for work horse #170 Gary Carter in 1980. His career as a player ended in 1981 at AAA, and the next season he began managing in the minors . . . which is what he is did until 2010 (career record: 1,273 and 1,222).

Thursday, August 22, 2013

#353 Keith Atherton

Card thoughts: This picture is nearly identical to his card in 1985, except he's looking in a different direction. But nothing looks worse than his cards in 1989, where he was sporting some seriously ugly glasses (and, on this traded card, was wearing eye black beneath them for some reason).

The player: Atherton was one of those workhorse middle relievers so common in the 70s and 80s. Although he never pitched over 60 games a year, he frequently went over 100 innings of work.

Judging by his minor league record, Atherton was a slow learner as he generally spent two years at each level. Despite being a starter in the minors, Atherton made his debut as a reliever in July of 1983, and would never start a game in the majors. For the next few years, Atherton inhabited the largely anonymous role of the  middle reliever, where his ERAs were generally above four, which was high for the time. In fact, his nickname in Oakland was “Boom Boom” because of all the home runs he gave up (by year: 7 in 1983, 13 in 1984, and 17 in 1985). Finally, after exhibiting a 5.87 ERA over 15 innings in 1986, Atherton was traded to the Twins for a bat and a bag of balls (actually, pitcher Eric Broersma, a 26 year old minor league veteran). With the Twins, he would have the best several months of his career in 1986, when he saved 10 games (tops on the team) and had a 3.75 ERA.

The next season, the Twins acquired reliever #35 Jeff Reardon, and Atheron was relegated to the middle relief role he was so accustomed to, and provided average work in the Twins World Series winning 1987 campaign, with his ERA just above league average and his WAR 0.1. With this example of mediocrity, Atherton was rarely used in either the ALCS or World Series, with Kelly preferring to go with 
more reliable relievers #47 Juan Berenguer and #324 Dan Schatzeder. After another year in the Twins pen, Atherton was traded to the Indians for pinch hitter Carmelo Castillo. Atherton was released soon after his final major league game, when he pitched a third of an inning and gave up three earned runs on four hits and a walk. 

Signed by the Tigers a few days later to a minor league contract, he pitched 6 games at Toledo but none in the majors. He signed another contract with the Expos in December, but he never made it out of spring training. 

Rear guard: Atherton's first win came after he relieved the unfortunately named Gorman Heimueller who had given up 5 runs to the Red Sox in just 3 2/3 innings of work. Atherton pitched the last 5 1/3 innings, and benefitted when the A's scored 7 runs off Bob Stanley.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

#352 Harry Spilman

Card thoughts: Apt picture of Spilman where he spent most of his time, on the bench (behind Spilman is Bob Lillis, who managed the Astros early in the 1985 season).

The player: Spilman lasted as long as he did because of his ability to be a left-handed pinch hitter.

Early glory came to to Spilman when he won the MVP in the Eastern League in 1977 (he led the league in runs, hits, doubles, on base percentage, and OPS). But when Spilman finally came to the majors for good in 1979, he was used as a pinch hitter about half the time, the other half as a late inning defensive replacement at first base or catcher.

In his rookie year (in what would become a pattern), he played in 43 games and came to the plate just 65 times. He hit .227 as a pinch hitter, but only .217 overall. Spilman would have his busiest year in 1980, when he came to the plate 114 times (41 at bats as a pinch hitter). In the pinch, he swatted two home runs, drove in 6, and hit .292.  Spilman even started several games in a row at first at the end of April into early May.

That was pretty much the end of Spilman’s semi-regular play in the field. He did not have over 100 plate appearances in any of the next several years.  Spilman ended up on the Astros after being traded for another reserve who rarely started, Rafael Landestoy. His career in Houston was marked by some good years (above average hitting in 1982 and 1984), and years when you wonder how he didn’t get released (a .136 average over 44 games in 1985).

After a short stint with the Tigers, Spilman had a bit of a late career renaissance with the Giants in 1986 and 1987. He hit .424 as a pinch hitter the former year, and was used 61 times in the role the latter year (but with less success). Spilman finished out his career in 1988 (with the Giants and Astros) and 1989 (with the Astros).

In a 12-year career, Spilman had only 810 at bats (and an average of just 67 a year). As a pinch hitter, Spilman had 77 hits, 7 home runs, and 34 runs batted in 330 at bats (a .233 career average). All that time on the bench studying pitchers made Spilman a natural as a coach. He managed for three years in the Indians system, and was the Astros hitting coach from 2000-2004. 

Rear guard: Spilman had the game of his life on September 30th, 1982. He went 4 for 5 and drove in 4 runs against the Giants. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

#351 Chuck Tanner

Card thoughts: Tanner is still all smiles, despite the fact that a) the once proud Pirates franchise was collapsing under a pile of cocaine b) the Pirates would finish in last place in 1985 and c) he was about to be fired.

The player/manager: Like many managers, Tanner had an unremarkable major league career. His career as a “regular” major leaguer lasted just three years (1956-1958), and his most successful years were with the Cubs as a fourth outfielder.  He managed for some time in the Angels chain before getting the chance to manage the White Sox in 1970. With the White Sox, he was able to bring out the best in the mercurial Dick Allen, leading to him winning the MVP in 1972. Other items of note during his White Sox tenure: He went with a three-man rotation in 1972 (the year he won the Manager of the Year award), and converted Rich Gossage and Terry Forster into dominant relievers.

By 1976, he was with the A’s where he developed a steal-at-all-costs strategy. In 1976, in the midst of Charlie Finley dismantling the former powerhouse, the A’s set a modern record with 341 steals (the stolen base was so paramount, the A’s employed two players—Larry Lintz and Matt Alexander—whose sole job was to pinch run). In an unusual move, Tanner was “traded” to the Pirates in the off season for Manny Sanguillen.

With the Pirates, Tanner had the most success, leading the team to a World Series win in 1979. That season, Tanner is credited with inventing modern bullpen usage, by designating relievers to come in one inning at a time after the sixth inning. But success faded fast, as several of his players (including the Pirates mascot!) were implicated in the Pittsburgh drug trials in 1985. By 1986, he was out.

After accepting the thankless task of managing, the creaky and dull 1986–1988 Braves teams, Tanner was replaced by Russ Nixon, thus ending his managerial career with a 1,352–1,381 won-loss record.

Tanner, and since his death, his family, run a restaurant in New Castle, Pennsylvania named "Chuck Tanner's Restaurant".

Rear guard: This is one of my best preserved cards in the set (and the back isn't marked up), which means I either got this card late in the year, or it was a substitute for a more beat up one. 

No glaring omissions on the Pirates cards chosen for this set. Outfielder Doug Frobel played 50 or so games for the Pirates, but he was sent to the Expos late in the year (and there isn't a card for him, even in an Expos uniform, in this set.)